Turbine or not turbine

Last-week’s decision to give the go-ahead to the London Array offshore wind farm was a welcome boost to a renewables industry that has been hit hard by the economic downturn.

Last-week’s decision to give the go-ahead to the London Array offshore wind farm was a welcome boost to a renewables industry that has been hit hard by the economic downturn.

Scheduled for completion in 2012, and costing around £2bn to build, the 1GW wind farm – the largest of its kind in the world – is expected to generate enough energy to power around 750,000 homes.

Little surprise then that the government has been trumpeting the scheme as the embodiment – and tip of the iceberg – of its vaulting renewables ambitions.

If only this were accurate. In truth, this characterisation of the project is a little wide of the mark, and while it may be full steam ahead for the London Array the future for other wind schemes looks less certain.

The London Array was saved at the last minute because UAE energy firm Masdar stepped in when Shell pulled out. And, from Shell’s scaling back on wind and solar power to the recent job cuts in BP’s solar business, there are many other examples of energy majors turning away form investment in renewables.

The green-light for the scheme has also highlighted some even more practical worries for the offshore wind industry.

In last month’s budget the financial mechanism that obliges suppliers to source electricity from renewables was tweaked in favour of offshore wind energy.

And while this has helped provide the impetus for the London Array it has also increased fears regarding the turbine manufacturing industry’s ability to meet demand.

Earlier this year, Siemens, one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of wind turbines, revealed that it has a four-year waiting list for some of its largest machines. Some fear the schemes like the London Array could soak up all the available technology and leave project managers on other schemes twiddling their thumbs for the next ten years.

Thus far, there is little sign that anything is being done to address these fears, and many are suggesting that this bottleneck will derail the UK’s goal to meet an ambitious 33GW wind energy target by 2020.

So while making wind energy more attractive to suppliers is one part of the jigsaw, government must also do more to encourage the industry that will actually turn its dreams to reality. The British Wind Energy Associationrecently suggested that ministers should launch an all-out effort to convince leading turbine makers to set up manufacturing plants in the UK. We would suggest that unless something along these lines happens, schemes like the London Array will remain the exception rather than the norm.

Jon Excell
Deputy Editor